There’s a reason so many people squat! It’s a basic, functional movement that you do every day when you lower your body to the ground to pick something up. We need to be strong and flexible to do those daily moves! Plus, few exercises are as effective at sculpting a lean, strong lower body as the venerable squat. But there’s a small problem. Most people don’t squat well. That’s not surprising since the ability to squat using good form varies depending on a person’s height, hip anatomy, leg length, ankle mobility, and hip mobility. But getting your squat form right is what lets you get the most out of the exercise and avoid injury. If you’re ready to improve your squat, here are seven steps you can take to improve your form and get more out of the exercise.
One of the most powerful techniques you can use to target your glutes and hamstrings more is to sit back into a squat. Doing this activates your hip extensors and shifts some of the focus of the exercise away from your quadriceps and toward your hamstrings and glutes. Also, make sure your back never rounds during a squat as this increases the risk of back injury by placing extra pressure on the discs in your spine. Your spine should always be neutral without curving your spine in either direction. Both place stress on your spinal discs. Sitting back into a squat also helps you keep your weight in your heels and reduces the risk of your knees falling inward.
Wear the Right Shoes
A simple way to improve your squat performance is to wear a pair of dedicated weight-lifting shoes. These shoes have an elevated heel that lets you squat deeper than a standard shoe. If you have poor ankle mobility, the extra support that weight training shoes offer can make a difference in how deep you squat. Plus, the firm heel platform on a weight-lifting shoe stabilizes your ankles, so you can generate more force safely. Running shoes, even though some have heavy padding, don’t have the same benefit, as the padding is soft and doesn’t offer firm enough support for the heels.
If you invest in weight-lifting shoes, don’t wear them when you deadlift. Since the shoes elevate your heels, it increases the distance between the bar on the floor and the top of the movement. Therefore, you’ll have to lift the bar a longer distance and that makes it harder.
Build Strength in Other Areas
To perform your best on a squat, you need a strong core and upper back. When your upper back and core are strong, it gives your upper body the stability it needs to perform the movement with good mobility and form. In fact, planks are a good warm-up exercise before doing a set of squats. When you start with planks, you get your core muscles firing before you launch into squats and other exercises where you need core stability. Also, work on strengthening your upper back muscles with exercises like rows and pull-ups.
Don’t save squats for the end of your routine. This compound exercise works multiple muscle groups and you’ll get the most benefit if you squat while you’re still fresh. Don’t wait until your muscles are exhausted from doing isolation exercises. Always start with a dynamic warm-up and an exercise to fire up your core muscles, like planks. Then do squats. You’ll have more energy to dedicate to squats if you do this exercise first when muscle glycogen stores are at their fullest, your neurons are firing on all cylinders, and your motivation is greatest. Research shows that working small muscle groups, with isolation exercises, before large ones using compound movements, decreases performance. If you’re trying to improve your squat, that’s not what you want.
Pause at the Bottom of a Squat
The bottom of a squat is often a sticking point that limits how much resistance you can use. One way to overcome this is to pause at the bottom before bringing your body back up. By pausing for 2 or 3 seconds, you eliminate the stretch reflex. This forces your muscles to do all the work of returning to the starting position. Pausing also makes you pause and focus on your form. If you do this consistently, you’ll upgrade your form and your overall mobility.
Another way to increase the benefits is to do a few partial squats near the bottom of a squat. On the last repetition, come up only part of the way and then do several partial squats where you squat from the midpoint to the bottom of the movement.
Do Single-Leg Squats
Squats may be a part of your strength-training program, but do you do single-leg squats? They’re harder to do, but the effort is worth it. Another benefit of single-leg squats is they help you develop better balance skills and correct differences in strength between your two sides. If one side needs more work than the other, single-leg squats let you work the weaker side independently of the other.
To improve the return you get on squatting, squat deeper. Most people have too shallow a range-of-motion when they squat and that limits the benefits of the exercise. At least, squat to parallel, but to maximizes the benefits, go lower, to the point that your buttocks almost touch the floor. Doing this will increase strength gains and gains in muscle size. Plus, you’ll get the most functional and athletic benefits from squatting deeper. Work up to deeper squats and focus on form. Most knee pain comes not from squatting deep but squatting deep with poor form.
The Bottom Line
Keep working at improving your form when you squat. It’s better to do squats with impeccable form than it is to load up on the weight and get sloppy with your technique. Although squats are mainly a lower body exercise, the muscles in your core stabilize your pelvis when you descend into a squat. So, you’ll get core benefits too. Plus, muscles in your upper body have to work to support the bar. So, it’s not a stretch to say that squats work your entire body, but make sure you’re doing them right!
- Science Daily. “Using a mirror for squat exercises: Is there a benefit?”
- “Squat Analysis”
- Deep Squats and Knee Health: A Scientific Review. Tony Ciccone, Kyle Davis, Dr. Jimmy Bagley, & Dr. Andy Galphin. Center for Sport.
- J Strength Cond Res 17: 629-633, 2003.